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Legionnaire Day - March 16

The Latvian Legion may be the most complicated, misunderstood and controversial fighting force of the last World War.

The Latvian Legion. 1943. Wikipedia.

Here are a few reasons why:

• Latvians greeted Germany as saviors after a year of brutal Soviet oppression, characterized by seizures, torture, deportations, executions. (Except for the Jewish citizens, of course.)

• The Latvian Legion fought under Nazi Germany’s command.

•  They fought on the eastern front. Legionnaires commonly explained they fought against Stalin not for Hitler, in the only means available to defend Latvia from a return of Soviet oppression. Not that they had much choice.

• Most Legionnaires were forcibly conscripted (or they could go to a slave labor camp in Germany). But they were called “volunteers,” because the Fourth Geneva Convention expressly forbade coercing civilians of an occupied country into the armed forces.

• The Wehrmacht (German Army) didn’t allow foreign conscripts to bear weapons. To get around that, the Legionnaires were categorized as SS (the feared organization directly involved in Holocaust atrocities and war crimes).

• Holocaust perpetrators Arajs Kommando were affiliated with the Latvian Legion. The actions of a small minority of Legionnaires were heinous enough to permanently shame Latvia. (Latvia has acknowledged Holocaust crimes, and made reparations.)

• A Legionnaire lauded for fighting against Communist oppression, also is responsible for slaughtering all Jews in a village. And the commemorative plaque still stands.

• Legionnaires gave their lives to prevent the Soviet Union from annexing Latvia. It’s important to mark their sacrifices, since the Soviets falsely claimed that Latvia went willingly into the Soviet Union.  

• Latvia’s political opponents overlook context in a rush to judge the entire Latvian Legion, or even the whole country, as ‘fascist.’

Like I said, complicated, misunderstood and controversial--making the Latvian Legion perfect fodder for historical fiction.


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